Who will defend processed food?

Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food makes some salient points about our screwed-up attitude to what we eat. But in lionising ‘natural foods’, he and his ilk have contributed to today’s wild and rotten worries about what’s on our plates.

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food is testament to the anxiety currently felt on both sides of the Atlantic about what and how we eat. After all, once the problem of scarcity has been overcome – as it has been in the Western world – we really shouldn’t need to consider the problem of food any further than asking: ‘What’s for dinner?’ And yet, food is frequently discussed as if it is poison rather than the basis of life itself.

Pollan sums up this modern concern well in the introduction to his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: ‘A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. It would not be susceptible to the pendulum swings of food scares or fads, to the apotheosis every few years of one newly discovered nutrient and the demonisation of another. It would not be apt to confuse protein bars or food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines. It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars or feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day. And it surely would not be nearly so fat.’

Why do we have such a screwed-up attitude to food? More importantly, why would anyone feel the need to write a ‘defence of food’? Pollan argues that ‘most of what we are consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all’. We no longer eat or dine but merely ‘feed’ on the move or in front of the television. And if food needs to be defended, then who does it need to be defended from? ‘From nutrition science on the one side and from the food industry on the other – and from the needless complications around eating that together they have fostered’, says Pollan.

Where The Omnivore’s Dilemma examined the ecological and ethical minefield behind the question ‘What should we have for dinner?’, In Defence of Food is more concerned with the question of health and, as a subtext, the way in which we relate to each other through food: ‘Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity.’

One of the many perversities that Pollan highlights is the way that the nation most obsessed with nutrition – the USA – is also the one that seems to have the worst diet. The first culprit is nutrition science, whose reductionist understanding of food means that instead of understanding our diets as a combination of whole foods, we see it as a collection of nutrients: vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, phytochemicals, anti-oxidants… the list goes on.

But whenever any particular aspect of our diet is considered in isolation, it seems to have little beneficial effect. So, in recent years, grand claims made about anti-oxidants or low-fat diets have been called into question. Every time someone identifies a ‘magic bullet’ that can be slipped into our food to make it healthier, someone else comes along a year or two later to shoot the theory down. The result is a faddy attitude to the latest fashionable nutrient. The current darling of nutritionists seeming to be omega-3 fatty acids, most easily obtained from oily fish, which are cropping up in all sorts of weird and wonderful foods.

Pollan argues that this ‘nutritionism’ may be missing the point. As omnivores, human beings seem to be both capable of surviving on a very broad range of diets – from vegetarian to almost wholly carnivorous and everything in between – and we actually require a variety of foods in our diets for optimum health. More importantly, Pollan argues that these need to be whole foods; those cultures that have the best diets tend to eat food which has not been heavily processed and, therefore, denuded of its nutritional value. Don’t fret about omega-3 – just eat some fish.

Which brings us to Pollan’s other villain: the food industry. For Pollan, food processors and retailers have only been interested in finding ways to ‘add value’ to their products. Plain, unadorned fruit, vegetables, meat and fish leave little room for big business to do anything other than get the produce to the shops and present it in a pretty fashion. Products that are the result of blending ingredients, cooking, freezing and other sorts of processing – like making them ‘fun’ – are much more profitable. Making nutritional claims about food – for example, by adding cholesterol-lowering substances or removing fat – is a perfect way to justify flogging cheap products like breakfast cereals and snack bars at a healthy premium. Healthy, that is, for the bottom line.

Pollan sums up his own ‘algorithm’ for eating as follows: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ These seven words at least have the advantage of pithiness. Admittedly, he then spends quite a long time explaining what ‘food’ is, but sums it up with the advice: ‘Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.’

While Pollan’s style seems a little less fraught than his British equivalents, like Joanna Blythman and Felicity Lawrence, he shares their capacity to make pertinent observations and yet come up with rotten conclusions.

It is certainly true that industry has committed some terrible offences against our palates. Pollan cites Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt as an example: ‘Is it a food or a toothpaste?’ Many convenience foods are a disappointment in terms of taste, texture and nutrition. But many other processed foods are excellent and a useful way of speeding up the preparation of good meals, as British cookery goddess Delia Smith’s new book shows (see Defending Delia from the food fanatics, by Justine Brian).

Nor is nutrition the only way in which big business ‘adds value’. Suddenly, the same food processors can pander to our desire for ‘unprocessed’ food, too. Why eat a tin of tuna when you can spend a fortune on line-caught sea bass? Why pay so little for bog-standard spuds when you can bask in the ethical glow of eating organic potatoes at twice the price instead? Instead of worrying about whether our food is actually going to provide the nutrients we need, the modern shopper – inspired by Pollan et al – can be paralysed instead by balancing pesticide-free with food miles and fairtrade. No wonder that Wal-Mart – hardly a defender of the little man – has started selling organic food and fretting about food miles (or to put it another way, optimising transport logistics).

As it happens, if you really want to be fleeced, try doing what Pollan suggests and buying your food from a Farmers Market. When you leave, penniless, with a couple of slices of cured meat and an artisan loaf, you may be rather disappointed at ‘what’s for dinner’. Or, you could get a box of locally-sourced vegetables delivered to your door. Pollan may find it terribly exciting to try to work out what to do with four gnarly onions, a butternut squash and some green leafy thing you need to Google, but it’s an expensive privilege I can happily forgo.

In reality, while there are long-standing health problems in Western societies, we also live longer than ever before. Whatever may be wrong with what or how we eat, most of us live to a ripe old age regardless. If we are to really understand the obsession with food, we cannot simply examine the products that are sold in shops or the endless deluge of junk science dressed up as nutritional advice. We have to take a step back and examine this problem in a wider context.

We live in a period when our sense of vulnerability about a whole range of issues – from the environment to terrorism, child abuse to bird flu – extends out of all proportion to any level-headed assessment of the risks involved. Health is simply one important aspect of this more generalised fear. And the promotion of health as a subject that should be central to our lives has come most strongly from government – one sector of society that is let off rather lightly in Pollan’s analysis.

The political class has used fears about health to justify the increasing micro-management of our lives. Where politicians are generally regarded with disdain on many issues, the endless advice and interference from health authorities is more readily accepted, which, in turn, provides governments with much-needed legitimacy. These health obsessions are then reflected in how we eat. This is true not just in countries that Pollan regards as culturally confused when it comes to food, like America and Britain, but even in countries with stable and traditional food cultures. For example, Pollan – like so many food writers – waxes lyrical about how great the French attitude to food and diet is. Yet, obesity rates among French children are rising rapidly, matched only by ever-greater levels of government intervention.

Pollan is, in many ways, a perceptive observer of our food habits and culture. Yet, like many critics of the way we live today, he ends up drawing anti-modern conclusions and suggesting a return to social practices based on tradition. Not only is this unlikely to happen, it is deeply conservative. Rather than turn our noses up at industrialised food production, we should recognise its benefits and demand something better. Perhaps its time for a defence of processed food.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating, by Michael Pollan is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today